United Methodist pastors respond to Texas jail death

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A United Methodist pastor continues her nearly month-long vigil outside the Texas jail where Sandra Bland died July 13 in a high-profile incident further straining police relations with African Americans.

The Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner said the vigil, which reached its 28th day on Tuesday, August 11, is to honor Bland and press for answers about her death in the Waller County jail. Authorities ruled the death a suicide.

“I feel committed to be in solidarity with her and with her family as they continue to ask what happened to Sandra Bland,” said Bonner, an Eastern Pennsylvania Conference elder who has been working at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston. “I have to say I agree with them that this does not seem like the kind of woman who would take her life.”

Meanwhile, the Rev. Katy Ware, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Hempstead, Texas – seat of Waller County – said she and other local clergy have confidence in investigations underway and are focused on working together for racial reconciliation.

“We’re here for the long haul,” Ware said. “We are trying to live out what it means to be one in Christ in this time and place in Waller County.”

Tensions over jail vigil

Bland, a 28-year-old Illinois resident who had graduated from predominantly black Prairie View A&M University in Texas and was back for a job interview, got pulled over on July 10 for a minor traffic violation. That led to a confrontation between her and a white state trooper, captured on video, and to her arrest.

An autopsy found that her death at the Waller County jail, three days later, was consistent with suicide. But her family has filed an unlawful death suit. The FBI is among the groups investigating.

Bonner has blogged and posted on social media about her vigil, and on Monday posted a video showing Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith approaching her outside the jail and telling her, “Why don’t you go back to the church of Satan that you run.”

Smith, reached by phone Tuesday, said the conversation was meant to be private and declined to discuss it in detail. But he made clear that he was not referring to The United Methodist Church.

“As far as the Methodist Church – gosh, God bless y’all,” he said. “I’ve got some very good friends that are Methodist ministers. Had breakfast with one this month already.”

But Smith insisted Bonner had encouraged a Sunday night protest that he said amounted to “storming” the jail, with four deputies getting injured. Bonner described that event differently in her blog, and in a phone interview disputed Smith’s assertion that she had a leading role.

“He seems intent on singling me out,” she said, adding she has no plans to stop the vigil.

“I’ve made a commitment to the (Bland) family,” she said. “I don’t know what that means. Only God knows.”

She said since posting the video of the sheriff, she’s had an outpouring of support, including from within the denomination.

 “It makes me proud to be a United Methodist,” Bonner said.

Fear factor

Ware described a less confrontational approach by local clergy of various denominations. She said they’ve had constructive conversations since Bland’s death, and have met with local officials.

“We are all in agreement that none of us want to hop onto any radical bandwagons,” she said. “We do want to seek justice. … This whole incident is absolutely tragic.”

Ware said First United Methodist in Hempstead is predominantly white, while nearby Bethlehem United Methodist is predominantly black. The churches have a close bond and held a joint vacation Bible school this summer, Ware noted.

That relationship has helped foster honest conversations about the Bland case, she said.

“That’s been a beautiful thing, to put ourselves in each other’s shoes, based on mutual love,” Ware said.

First United Hempstead will have members present August 21 to help the Wesley Foundation at Prairie View A&M greet students arriving for fall term.

“Fear can be a big factor,” Ware said. “It’s important for white people to be there and let them know Waller County welcomes them.”

The Rev. Dwayne Thompson, who leads the Wesley Foundation at Prairie View A&M and is pastor at First United Methodist Church in Prairie View, said he's heartened by the commitment of local clergy.

"We’ve been talking a lot about the reconcilation part," Thompson said. "We do need to get justice, but there also has to be, at some point, a serious conversation about reconciliation – about race and relationships. ... We've got to find a way to live in the same space together, and be accountable and responsible for that space."

Calling for answers

Erin Hawkins, top executive of The United Methodist Church’s Commission on Religion and Race, joined Bonner, Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and hundreds of others in a July 26 march from the Prairie View A&M chapel to where Bland was arrested, near Hope AME Church.

“Her death is yet another headline to process, to mourn over, to respond to,” Hawkins wrote afterwards. “The problem is that as we try to make sense of her case, there have been several other questionable deaths of people of color in police custody in recent weeks.”

Leaders of the denomination’s social advocacy agency, the Board of Church and Society, also called for “answers” in the Bland case.

Bland was a member of DuPage AME Church in Lisle, Illinois. Bonner said she’s come to understand that Bland was an unapologetic witness for Christian faith.

“We have lost a great evangelist in the Methodist movement,” Bonner said.

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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